A reader, John P, recently asked if my breakfast and dinner recipes are suitable for “freezer bag cooking”:
In preparing for my first ever thru-hike…I’m trying to figure out my menu…and came across your recipes. Is it possible to cook them using the freezer-bag method instead of cooking them in a pot? Can I pre-mix the ingredients, add boiling water, and let sit in a bag and cozy for 20 minutes?
Since I’ve fielded similar private inquiries before, I thought worthwhile to address here.
What is Freezer Bag Cooking?
Before John’s email prompted me, I had never looked deeply into the method, which I’ll attribute (with reservations) to Sarah Kirkconnell, author of several books including Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple. I had heard of it, but was turned off immediately by its name — Why would I ever want to cook and eat out of a freezer bag?
In fact, Freezer Bag Cooking is more of an approach to backpacking food, not just a preparation technique. Kirkconnell promotes DIY meals, not commercial freeze-dried varieties like those from Mountain House or prepackaged items like Knorr Pasta Sides. Meal ingredients are pre-mixed at home and cooked together in the field, not bagged and cooked separately, which generates excessive trash and dirty dishes. Finally, as the name implies, the meals are “cooked” inside a freezer bag, typically insulated with a cozy, and eaten directly from the bag.
This last component is the only unique aspect of Freezer Bag Cooking. DIY meals and pre-mixed ingredients are probably about as old as backpacking, and seem far more commonsensical than revolutionary. Oddly, while Kirkconnell recommends cooking in and eating from a freezer bag, she is not insistent on it. If you’re wondering why Freezer Bag Cooking is named as it is or why it’s talked about like it’s something different, you’re not alone.
My thoughts on Freezer Bag Cooking
Kirkconnell and I agree on two things. First, DIY meals that are pre-mixed and cooked together are more economical, simpler, and lighter than the alternatives — and, if your recipes are good, the meals are more than satisfactory. View my favorite recipes.
Beyond that, I will make a strong case for cooking in and eating out of your cookpot, not a plastic freezer bag. Why:
1. It’s a better eating experience. If I’m given the option of eating from a hard-sided bowl (which in this case doubles as my cooking container) or a plastic bag, I will pick the bowl every time. Eating from a plastic bag feels cheap.
2. Thoroughly cook your food, fast. For ingredients like polenta, macaroni, and instant rice, an extra 30 to 60 seconds of simmering dramatically improves cook time. After a long and hard day, eating 10 minutes earlier does matter, trust me. Moreover, at high elevations and in colder temperatures, the option to simmer can be a necessity, not just a luxury. Consider that 12 oz of 195-degree water (the boiling point at 9,000 feet) will cool immediately to 147 degrees when poured into a 6-oz bag of 50-degree food. Some food items will struggle to reconstitute fully at this temperature, or it will just take a very long time.
3. Unlike a plastic bag, there is no risk that your metal pot will tear or develop holes that will leak when filled with water. Freezer bags are tough but they are not impervious, particularly on long trips when they might bounce around in your pack or bear canister for a week before being consumed.
4. Packaging your meals into disposable sandwich bags is not perfect, but it’s more economical and more environmentally friendly than using heftier freezer bags. I suppose that freezer bags can be washed and reused, but I’m doubtful that many backpackers do.
5. Do you think it’s safe to heat food in a freezer bag? Ziplok does, based on the standards set by the EPA for food-grade plastics. I’m not concerned with what they know, but what they don’t know yet (a la BPA), and I’d rather not chance it when there’s a reasonable alternative.
But if I cook in my pot, I have to clean it!
True, if you cook in and eat out of a freezer bag, you don’t dirty your pot. But you simply transfer the mess: rather than a dirty pot, you have a dirty plastic bag that you must pack out, hopefully without it leaking.
Plus, a dirty pot is not something to fear. To wash it, add a few ounces of water and scrub the insides with your fingers. If you think you really need one (you don’t), pack a cut-up sponge. You can drink the greywater or disperse it, your call; I normally drink it, especially when in arid areas or dry camping.
For extra messy pots (e.g. scorched food, oil slicks, sticky cheese) add a handful of dirt, sand, or forest duff to the rinse water. Use it as an abrasive to clean the pot. Rinse twice, dispersing the water each time.
By making soupy meals, clean-up is generally easier. There are other perks, too.
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